From Australia it was off to the Philippines, yet another place we’ve often discussed yet never actually managed to visit. After taking just a couple days to decompress slightly after our hectic schedule of eating and driving and eating in Australia, we found ourselves in El Nido, Palawan. Named the “Best Island in the World” by Conde Nast, we can only speak to a tiny corner of it, (and I have my doubts if the judges even bothered with the difficult trip out to Big Island near Waskesiu, or the famous Lawson Heights sandbar which appears toward the end of June) but I have to admit that the part of Palawan we saw was pretty amazing, surrounded by a massive array of small, idyllic islands with dramatic limestone karsts, beautiful white sand beaches fringed with prototypical swaying palm trees. Other than that, though, they were really nothing special. Nonetheless, we soon embarked on a 5-day, 4-night boat journey with Tao Expeditions that would take us from El Nido north to Coron, passing through the Bacuit Archipelago, past Linacapan to weave through the Calamian Islands, staying on a variety of islands along the way. An absolutely incredible trip, full of stunning island scenery, tremendous snorkelling and swimming stops, deserted beaches, fascinatingly remote villages, some caves, some cliff jumping, plenty of lying around simply soaking up the relaxed island-time ambience, and a whole lot of beer and “pumpkin soup”, the briefly chuckle-worthy name given to the rum punch concoctions we were enthusiastically fed every few hours or so in varying volumes from day to day. Just a great experience, something to keep in mind over the next few minutes whenever I launch into my inevitable cranky discourses on certain details that struck me as odd, off-putting or even occasionally bafflingly pornographic.
Apparently the “tao” in Tao Expeditions means “person” in Tagalog, which indeed there were many of. A very wide variety, as usual: 6 French, 4 Dutch, 4 English, 3 Australian, 2 Canadian (guess who?), 2 Israeli, 1 Czech, 1 Welsh, 1 Filipino and 1 Danish (the person, not the pastry). Of course, there was also our 5 strong boat crew who were all also Filipino, and all hailing from various islands in the very area where we would be travelling. So began the slow, occasionally arduous, process of meeting everyone, memorizing names, discovering a bit of background, by default learning everyone’s personal preferences in all matters from how important a good fit is in bathing suits, to what is a suitable time to crack the first beer, to who was capable of napping 7 times per day, to who still hadn’t really bought into that whole alarmist sunscreen movement. Then, of course, I needed to remain within beckoning distance of Laynni for whenever she needed to know someone’s name. Once these preliminary meet and greets had taken place we had the next 5 days to work our way through the group, hopefully eventually having a real conversation or two with most of them, or at the very least finding out the essentials, such as their take on the globalization of doughnuts, or which side of the fence they sit with regard to male flight attendants.
As a company, Tao seems quite dedicated to sharing their profits with the local communities, and working in concert with them to create an advantageous and enjoyable situation for everyone involved. They have set up a potentially self-sustaining farm intended to benefit the nearby community as well as provision their boat trips along the way, and a permanent main camp on Culion Island where they have a real dock and a more extensive infrastructure than most. And what sublime island retreat would be complete without its very own videoke bar? Of course, while everything they said seemed confirmed by the enthusiastic community involvement we witnessed along the way, we couldn’t help but notice that one somewhat fortuitous end result of all this was the ability to provide a lot of very defensible reasons for them to have bought up 16 separate parcels of land, all on beautiful beaches, with none of those reasons having included the terms “land speculation”, “skyrocketing property values” or “giggling like crazy while running around with heavy bags marked with cartoonishly large dollar signs”. Of course, it is always possible that all the lucrative financial possibilities will eventually cross their minds, surprising and unbidden like suddenly remembering a forgotten password in the middle of the night, or a new hair sprouting from a mole. You never know.
Our eminent captain was young Jim-Boy (many Filipino men like to modify their names to make them sound younger, as though having reached the ancient age of 22 was an embarrassing secret they would rather keep hidden like an unseemly third nipple, or Bieber on your iPod). Apparently he has been working with Tao for nearly 40% of his short life, theoretically giving him both the wisdom of experience and the enthusiasm of youth. In reality, however, I suspect he spent the majority of that time mastering back flips and card tricks, although we certainly couldn’t fault his energy or endless supply of incomprehensible jokes. And, while we didn’t see his videoke skills firsthand, opting out of the incongruousness of including such an absurdly obnoxious activity as part of a rustic island hopping adventure, we certainly heard more than our share as he graciously cranked the speakers up to “pummel entire island into submission”-level until about 2 am or so, an undertaking that, not surprisingly, led to mixed reactions from the group as a whole – from “best night ever” to “can this really be happening right now?” to “on the bright side maybe I can set a new personal best for late night journeys to a really sketchy toilet”.
We stayed in a different camp each night, with our living quarters varying from simple thatch platforms with mosquito nets but no walls to simple wooden platforms with mosquito nets but no walls. We were also given a small mat and just a single sheet, which was more than sufficient considering that night-time temperatures in April in the Philippines can easily be categorized as “at the very most you might want to find something really, really light and gently drape it over your private parts”. While the sleeping facilities were all fairly similar, the camps themselves varied considerably. There was the organized and compact Cadlao Island (where we spent the day doing a big island-hopping circle only to eventually end up just back across the bay from El Nido for the night, albeit hidden on the far side, well out of sight and perfectly conducive to the ongoing illusion of remoteness). Next up was the Tao Farm, actually located on mainland Palawan but far up in the very northeast corner, where there was an actual physical bar (with bar stools and all, not a club per se) built to accommodate our eating, drinking and rambunctious socializing, then in the morning we got to see a giant sow give birth to about a dozen shockingly large piglets (presumably not a planned activity, but still) and were treated to a very long, very hot informative tour of the farm (unless, of course, you opted for Plan B, which for me was lying in our bamboo shelter staring at the ceiling blankly, despite having my e-reader well within arm’s reach, simply happy to avoid standing around under the searing sun learning about pig ancestry, or the future hopes and dreams of the potato patch). Our third camp was by far the best, located on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere (as far as we could tell, anyway) with huts boasting ocean views (where walls would normally, and inconveniently, be found), a stunningly photogenic sunset and the satisfaction that comes with earning your locale by navigating nearly a hundred metres of sharp rock and coral at low tide in order to make it from the boat to shore. The one and only time the $6 plastic water shoes we bought in El Nido really came in handy (mine desperately trying to pass themselves off as Converse knock-offs, making their inherent ugliness just that much sadder), saving us the bevy of painful cuts to hands and feet suffered by many others. On the other hand, though, those people didn’t have to be seen in my shoes, so in the end it may have been a wash. Probably one of the reasons we enjoyed it so much was because it was one of only 2 nights we actually made it to camp before dark, which allowed us to enjoy the setting sun, stifle snickers while shouting encouragement to Robby as he attempted to kayak back out to the boat in roughly 1.5 centimetres of water, and congratulate Costa on the shrimp he was able to capture with his bare hands, but which later mysteriously disappeared, presumably escaping into the bush, or maybe running off to audition for Red Lobster commercials, and, most importantly, switch from simply dabbling with daytime alcoholism to truly getting drunk in earnest well before supper. Plus, Laynni found a snake in a tree very close to our huts, and thus started the usual game of “how long before some guy decides he absolutely must poke the wildlife with a stick?” game. The answer, somewhere between 4 and 6 minutes. Night four, on the other hand, was in Tao Base Camp, introduced earlier as the inexplicable centre of all things videoke, where we arrived late, took a bucket shower even later (while red ants vented their anger on my damp and vulnerable feet), ate later yet, kept running into the volleyball net permanently erected across the main path, then were treated to late night renditions of everything from “Sweet Child ‘o Mine” to “Roar”.
Going somewhat further on the topic of “bathrooms” and “showers”, our facilities along the way generally consisted of seat-less toilets that you flushed by vigorously flinging water into the bowl at just the right angle (the exact amount of vigour varying based on personal digestion, the total number of San Miguel consumed per day, and the ratio of seafood to pork), and showers involving a large barrel of water, a medium-sized bucket, and an extremely small chance of leaving without an inconvenient surplus of soap in one orifice or another. At Tao Farm we actually even took it a step further, presumably in the interests of efficiency, with the shower area fully open to the elements allowing all 25 of us to gather together in a confusing jumble of sweat-streaked bodies bumbling into each other in the pitch dark as we attempted to use one well, two buckets and plenty of headlamps and flashlights that would have been more helpful were they not mostly turned off in the interests of modesty. Plus, it seemed prudent to avoid seeming like a predatory creep by shining his light, inadvertently or not, directly at the vagina of the girl next to you attempting to discreetly give a quick under-the-shorts rinse and finger scrub to her nether regions, not mention lower your odds of catching an accidental glimpse of Welsh Steve lingering on the periphery buck naked and moving stealthily, like his pale white skin and lewdly bobbing genitals would somehow blend seamlessly into the background as long as he didn’t make any sudden movements. Meanwhile, the vast majority looked on impatiently as one of the French guys slowly and methodically rinsed his body piece by piece, bucket by bucket, apparently oblivious to the fact he was literally surrounded by people staring at the bucket hopefully every time he finished yet another remote body part, only to have their hopes once again dashed as he slowly and deliberately reached in for another bucketful.
The food throughout the trip was surprisingly awesome, especially considering most of the meals were concocted in the tiny ship kitchen, and featured heavy doses of both fish and seafood, but also a fair amount of pork, tons of fruit and, of course, white rice, which is either the national food of the Philippines, or really should be the national food of the Philippines. Every day we had a different breakfast (including a half-coconut filled with oatmeal and fruit the final morning), they plied us with sweet and/or deep fried snacks at all sorts of surprising times of the day, and on our final afternoon both of us had actually drank enough rum and beer to eat octopus (the tentacles rather reluctantly) and crab (the legs rather poorly).
“Emerson” (named after the brand of my 1990’s ghetto blaster, I presume) was a reasonably large outrigger with a somewhat cramped eating area but plenty of loungers, a couple hammocks and more hard-ass wooden benches than you could shake a sore, and still a bit damp, ass cheek at. Thanks to the large wooden outriggers there were literally dozens of places to get into or out of the water during our numerous snorkelling, swimming and shore stops. All in all, a tight fit but well-organized, much like a 6-passenger Filipino moto-tricycle, or my lotion drawer. The crew was outstanding, especially Charlon, our young cook with the frosted tips in his hair, and Aya, officially and somewhat patronizingly listed as “entertainment”, but who in reality was the ship nurse, the default English translator when necessary, and more often than not the apparent voice of reason on a boat simply chock-full of testosterone and mangos. There was one older guy whose name I could never remember, but who seemed to handle all the truly important jobs such as replacing the knackered propeller, or retrieving, scampering with, then quickly tying, the tow rope responsible for getting us to safety on day four. Oh right, did I mention that our boat broke down out in The Middle of Nowhere one day, having either hit something (which seemed unlikely considering how far out we were) or maybe the propeller simply chose that moment to call an end to a long, satisfying career of propelling tourists from island to island. Whatever happened, the end result looked like the work of some grinning supervillain who decides to completely mangle something with his bare hands, just as an intimidation tactic. They managed to change the prop surprisingly quickly, considering they had no scuba gear on board so had to rely on really deep breaths and chain-smoking, but then it soon became apparent that the drive shaft was also irretrievably bent, so on to Plan C. Which, apparently, was to get the word out to any ships in the area that, you know, we could really use some help, stat. I couldn’t understand much of Jim-Boy’s increasingly frantic Filipino diatribe into the mike, except for the occasional, but very telling, English word that popped up like “help” and “SOS”. Having said that, our captain, assuming he didn’t actually run into anything he shouldn’t have, seemed quite competent as well.
Eventually an old wooden cargo boat came to our rescue, tossed us a hefty tow rope and off we went, albeit really, really slowly. After an hour or two they suddenly unhooked us and started to veer off, waving happily while Jim-Boy and the rest of the crew stared in confusion for a moment before gathering themselves and starting to beckon wildly, then imploring us “to wave and call them back, we need to convince them!” Not sure what finally tipped the scales, whether it was simply a case of miscommunication eventually sorted out, or if my most winning lopsided grin really made the difference as it usually does (especially when it comes to getting free mints at barber shops), but soon they had realized that where they had left us was very, very far from where we were hoping, and had circled back and were once again attempting to tie us on, a process that seemed somehow far more challenging the second time around. Long story short: yelling, yelling, one boat revving forward, one boat revving backward, more yelling, shrill yelling, a sudden impact followed by a loud, and highly disconcerting, crunching noise, as we apparently rammed them, breaking some wooden beams on each end of the collision. Then laughter as crew realized the damage was only superficial, and not the far more disturbing “forget your valuables, dress light, and preserve your energy because it’s going to be a long night of treading water and drinking your own urine”. More laughter, celebratory cigarettes all around, and, voila, 6 hours later we slowly limped into port on Culion Island. All’s well that ends well, even if that ending did happen to include sleeping on a piece of plywood next to the bathroom.
With our boat now out of commission, Tao sent a “paraw” sailing vessel to pick us up the following morning. A much more aesthetically pleasing boat, all hardwood and sails and open spaces, but despite supplementing its sails with a small engine it was still much slower than our original ride, which meant we weren’t able to make any stops along the way on our final day. Just sit back, enjoy the view, and maybe drink enough alcohol to kill a goat, or maybe an unusually sickly dwarf. Besides giving us the courage to take action photos of each other’s crotches, such timely liquid motivation also convinced Laynni to climb half-way up the steadily swaying main mast just to get a good bird’s eye photo, led me to mischievously take a close-up photo of my left nipple using Renata’s camera when she wasn’t looking (a photo which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a 5-second video featuring more squeezing than was probably necessary) and eventually led Laynni to persuade our vacating ship to return the short distance to the pier so she could personally hand an extra tip to Charlon the cook, along with some drunkenly effusive thanks, followed by us finally being disgorged, drunk and disoriented, into the dark chaos of Coron, both walking and smelling like seasoned sailors.
In addition, we were thrilled to see that despite all of its essential differences, our new ship had a constant inch of water washing back and forth over your feet while you went to the bathroom, just like our old ship, which was nice, and not nearly as creepy a feeling after the first 30 or 40 times. If fact, I now actually have a hard time urinating with dry feet, much in the same way I still freeze up when someone asks me to pee on their jellyfish sting in a riotous sit-com.
As for how we spent our days among the remote Philippine islands, well, not surprisingly just about everything we did revolved around the water. We snorkelled 2 or 3 times per day, if not more. There was a lot of great coral and, while not a lot of big highlight stuff, a huge number of colourful little fish and those swirling schools that can be so mesmerizing, especially when oxygen is limited and the beer flowing freely. We did see a couple big groupers, some lionfish, spotted stingrays, several unusually large angelfish, some very cool caves, a big lagoon with an exhilarating sheer wall, and even a little shipwreck just off one beach. Surprisingly few people followed Tao’s very specific recommendations regarding rash guards, resulting in daily group commiseration regarding sunburns and jellyfish stings. I, however, thoroughly enjoyed my brand new “El Nido, Palawan” rash guard, feeling like it’s skin-tight fit and shiny lycra combined with my all-purpose buff (Ladies size M) to provide not only an iron-clad barrier against the sun, but also made me look like gym rat UFC aficionado who means business, and also knows just how flattering black can be when your nipples are hard. They did not provide fins, however, presumably either to avoid clutter on the boat or to force us to exert ourselves enough to at least partially offset our steady diet of sugary snacks and even more sugary alcoholic beverages, which meant some long tiring swims, and later even longer, more tiring stories about devious currents and aching lats.
When we weren’t snorkelling we did a lot of aimless cruising among the islands, simply enjoying the scenery, or stopping in nice bays or on nice beaches to swim, boat jump, practice backflips, test manliness in epic bouts of beam wrestling to the delight of rowdy crowds, and even visited a perfect cove for cliff-jumping, which some found irresistibly manly and thrilling, but which I only eventually took part in because I happened to be swimming right by anyway and, you know, couldn’t think of any compelling reason not to. Other than having to climb up the side of cliff barefoot and then having to jump from 25 feet up to crash into water that suddenly felt a hell of a lot harder on impact than it had seemed when I happily swimming around in it just moments earlier.
Also – kayaking, reading, lounging, sleeping, drinking, eating, singing, dancing, all in different measures and with varying levels of enthusiasm depending on the passenger.
In the end, however, the islands were the star of the show. They were the reason we took the trip in the first place, and they certainly did not disappoint. Hour after hour of bucolic postcard views featuring perfect tropical islands – crystal-clear water in varying shades of blue and green, steep limestone cliffs erupting from the sea like a jagged stone box malls, lined with blinding white sand fringed with swaying palm trees like the giant fluttering eyelashes of a flirtatiously tipsy Dutch giant. Further north, toward Coron, the beaches faded to grey, the palms to hardy shrubberies, the limestone to rugged rocky crags, these islands no longer as ridiculously photogenic, but even more effective and inviting to large flocks of birds looking for a nice comfortable spot to shit all over the place. For example.
Five days well spent, he said.